English Vinglish is a throwback to the good old days of Tamil cinema when heroines were not just treated as objects of the hero’s obsession, had well-defined roles written specifically with them in mind, and, can you believe it, actually had the acting talent to pull them off. With heroines coming and going by the numbers nowadays, it is refreshing to see a feminist film with arguably the Queen of Cinema herself as the centrepiece. Even if the film did not have an uplifting theme and a strong message, it would’ve been worth watching just to see a proper actress strut out her acting talents, but that it does makes it all the better.

Shashi (Sri Devi), is a South-Indian housewife who, besides looking after the daily household activities, runs a small business of packaging and selling home-made laddus. Her daughter Sapna (Navika Kotia), who studies in an English convent, constantly berates her and makes her feel inferior because of her inability to converse in English, with husband Sathish (Adil Hussain) joining in as well. When she’s forced to travel to the US alone to help her sister Manu (Sujata Kumar) with wedding preparations, she finds herself to be like a fish out of water in a foreign land. Soon after arriving in New York, she sets out to learn English by joining a four-week crash course. In the US, she finds comfort in the form of her niece Radha (Priya Anand) and friendship in the form Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou) who makes her feel alive again.

The story is as straightforward as it can get for an uplifting motion picture of this sort. There is little doubt that Shashi becomes a decent-enough English speaker to deliver the final speech on family virtues, on not being judgmental (the usage of this word should come as no surprise to people who see the film) with family members, and about being there for one another. These essential bits and pieces are predictable, but what the film does so effectively is show the dynamics of each individual relationship brilliantly.

Shashi and Laurent’s relationship is a classic example of this. There is a hint of romance obviously. But it is treated with the kind of maturity one wouldn’t usually expect. They’re both cooks and have a lot in common, and it starts off with the kind of casual conversations about different cooking styles. And soon enough, they hit it off. We know exactly what is coming when he is asked what he likes in the English class the most. But her reaction to that is beautiful, understated and totally out of the blue. The same goes for her words to Laurent during the film’s climax. I just found it be a beautiful relationship and one of the film’s many highlights.

The same cannot be said of the over-the-top nature of Sapna’s character. My sister, who I watched the film with, did inform me that it was representative of the director herself who’d ill-treated her mother in similar fashion. But I grew to hate her as the film wore on. Sathish comes across as a much better character. He obviously loves his wife – there are quite a few subtle scenes that demonstrate this – but, in typical male fashion, is oblivious to the kind of hurt his casual words are inflicting on her. I also enjoyed the charming take on Radha’s character. Normally in our films, it’d be the US NRI who’d look down upon the Indian housewife, but she’s extremely supportive of her aunt’s perseverance and becomes a co-schemer towards the end of the film.

Though she’s buried under what appears to be layers of Botox, Sri Devi’s excellent performance is at the heart of English Vinglish. Whether it is being frightened in the coffee shop at the attendant’s screaming or demonstrating her enjoyment of Laurent’s words or showering care on her family, she’s quite simply perfect when it comes to portraying all of Shashi’s facets. And she nails the speech right at the end. It is delivered with the right amount of emotions that bring out all the pain she must’ve felt in those hurtful moments. She’s ably supported by a great cast full of efficient character actors who play their parts perfectly, but always cede the screen to the star when she is on it. Ajith’s cameo is sure to make you cheer since he gets a juicy line, and he also makes a self-aware comment which will elicit a smile if you are one of the few who’s followed his career since his debut.

English Vinglish is easily one of the best films of 2012 and a must-watch for anyone who wants to spend a happy couple of hours and end up feeling elated at the end.